Even when the sun shone briefly over a frigid State Street
yesterday morning, its brightness was no match for the golden halls
of Hill Auditorium.
Nearly two years since closing its doors for renovations, the
legendary auditorium — which housed such greats as opera
virtuoso Luciano Pavarotti and impresario Leonard Bernstein in past
years — reopened yesterday to University students and
thousands of members of the Ann Arbor community. What they
encountered was a structure prodigiously different from the aged,
graying theater of the last five decades.
“It’s just brighter,” said Jennie Lombard, an
Ann Arbor resident who graduated from the University in the class
of 1959. Visitors wandered the auditorium, following musical
performances and a ribbon-cutting ceremony by University President
Mary Sue Coleman, administrators and architects.
Lombard recalled concerts she attended in the auditorium during
her days as a student, when the theater wore coats of gray and
beige paint that concealed hundreds of opalescent lights.
Today, the pale colors have been stripped away. The highest
points of the ceiling now don sashes of blue and gold setting into
gleaming bronze arches above the stage.
“I’ve been in a lot of auditoriums and this was
amazing,” said Jessica Chaise, an LSA senior.
“I’ve never seen a hall so beautiful,” Coleman
said before participating in the ribbon-cutting ceremony on
But as project coordinators quickly pointed out, the
auditorium’s new look — which carries a $40 million
price tag the University covered partly through donations —
is more of a conservative transformation than a metamorphosis into
anything radical and untried. The renovation, which spent more than
10 years in the planning phase, restores Hill to its early-20th
century “Arts and Crafts” décor. The University
masked the original design during a 1949 remodeling project.
“Because it’s a restoration, we did it so it looks
like it’s always been here,” said Henry Baier,
associate vice president for facilities and operations for the
University, who oversaw the auditorium’s latest makeover.
There are now, however, some amenities — artistic,
acoustical and practical — that were absent from the hall
when workers originally completed its construction in 1913.
With regards to the auditorium’s interior, project
coordinators brought back the house’s gold, blue and bronze
color scheme, illuminated more than 300 “medallion” and
“necklace” lights on the hall’s vaulting walls.
They also hand-painted the yawning glass laylight that gazes down
upon the audience.
But whereas longtime patrons of the auditorium may remember
seeing blue painted organ pipes on stage, workers leafed those
pipes in gold.
“They were very simple colors,” Baier said,
referring to the hall’s 1949 motif. “They would be kind
of a light beige, a light gray, where now you look it is very warm
— very elegant.”
In addition, the project organizers — interior designer
Mariuca Brancoveanu and architect firms Albert Kahn Associates and
Quinn Evans/Architects — fixed to the ceiling’s zenith
a blue and gold “M” pendant and replaced the once
upholstered seats with velvet-covered wood-backs.
Aside from enhancing Hill’s appearance, project
coordinators also improved the auditorium’s acoustical
properties. A set of heavy, leather-bound doors and an underground
ventilation system buried beneath the Modern Languages Building
assure that unwanted noises from the main lobby — also newly
renovated — and the air conditioning will not disturb
“We were going to drop a pin on stage and see if you could
hear it at the upper level and mezzanine level,” said Diane
Brown, facilities and operations spokeswoman.
While Hill’s acoustics were by no means poor before the
renovations, Bradley Bloom, associate dean of the School of Music,
said a new archway constructed over lower-mezzanine seats in the
back of the auditorium will eliminate the “echo effect”
performers experienced onstage in previous years.
During a media tour of the hall before patrons began streaming
past its doors, Baier said preserving Hill’s sonic ascendancy
was a chief goal of all project coordinators.
“We took care not to change the parabolic geometry of
Hill, which controls acoustics,” he said.
The ceremony’s musical performances, quite literally,
echoed Baier’s reflections.
Between speeches from architects and faculty, University music
students roused visitors with opera, rich violin jigs and trumpet
fanfares that cut across the hall without the aid of
“We’ve tried to preserve the acoustics,” Music
School dean Karen Wolff said. “It will feel very, very fine
to come back home to Hill.”
For situations that call for some amplification, such as
Freshman Convocation and lectures, orators can avail themselves of
the hall’s upgraded sound technology, which includes new
speakers tucked behind the organ pipes.
New-century renovations also make Hill a more accommodating
facility. Additional lobbies and meeting spaces,
wheelchair-accessible seating, ramps alongside staircases, updated
fire and alarm systems, brighter exterior lighting and more
bathrooms — twice as many as before the project began
—enhance patrons’ visits to the auditorium.
“This was just a wasted space,” Coleman said,
referring to a now refurbished, whitewashed lower lobby that
previously displayed only rust and piping. The space plans to soon
exhibit the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, the
University’s collection of more than 2,000 instruments from
around the world.
Despite a host of new amenities, Baier said project coordinators
were forced to cut back on one of the hall’s features:
seating. The restored Hill contains about 500 fewer seats than
before its renovation, according to fact sheets provided by the
But at 3,600 seats, it’s still 1.5 times the size of New
York City’s Carnegie Hall, said Kenneth Fischer, president of
the University Musical Society.
Although the restoration project proved costly, the proposal has
been handed down through five University presidents — who
held their tenure during better economic times, Coleman said. Now
that the University has taken a $16.4-million funding cut for the
winter term, administrators must begin to focus more on issues that
immediately affect students.
But she added that the auditorium can be an educational asset in
“It will allow our community to benefit from not only
having great performers, but when those performers come to the
University, they visit the classrooms,” she said.